New contract gives Mattingly peace of mind
No longer working on one-year deal, manager pleased with confidence of ownership
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The vicissitudes of the 2013 season behind him, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly joined his club in camp this weekend with a renewed attitude and in a different comfort zone.
There are no guarantees in sports, but there's something about a three-year contract that brings a spring to the step.
"I've seen a lot of talk lately about the security, and that's never really been an issue for me," Mattingly told MLB.com on Saturday. "It's more the confidence, and that's what I think is important. The organization has shown confidence. I think it says that to fans, it says that to me and more importantly it says that to the players. It lets them know that we feel like this guy can do the job."
The Dodgers are back after last year's division-winning season and trip to the National League Championship Series, where they lost to the Cardinals in six games. It was a season of three stages: early injury and disappointment, that incredible 40-8 run after Yasiel Puig was brought up from the Minors and Hanley Ramirez returned from the disabled list, and the final struggle to win the NL West title and succeed in the playoffs.
Through it all, Mattingly managed like fellow Dodgers skippers Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda did so many times before him: on a one-year contract. The Dodgers had an option for 2014 on Mattingly's contract, but they declined to exercise it. This, though, is a much different era than the mid-1950s to 1983, when Lasorda was finally rewarded with a three-year deal. The Dodgers had a $216 million player payroll, and every time they struggled this past season, Mattingly's future was called into question.
"Jerry Hairston said something to me the other day," said Mattingly, referring to the retired Dodger who is now a member of their broadcast team, speaking about the trials and tribulations of last season. "He said, 'We always had your back. It was like your parents going through a divorce. Nobody says anything, but it's like, is mom going? Is dad going? What's going to happen?' So for me, it's the confidence the organization has shown in me more than anything."
For much of this past season, Mattingly has said he felt as if he and his coaching staff were left on an island without a support system. He expressed that opinion after the Dodgers wrapped up the division title with that pool party at Chase Field. And after they were eliminated and his option automatically kicked in with a victory over the Braves in their NL Division Series, he let all the anguish spill out during a wrap-up news conference in the bowels of Dodger Stadium.
"My option vested once we beat Atlanta," Mattingly said that day. "That doesn't mean I'll be back. It's been a frustrating, tough year honestly, because I think when you ... come in basically as a lame duck and with the payroll and the guys that you have, it puts you in a tough spot in the clubhouse."
Mattingly played his entire 14-year career as an All-Star first baseman with the Yankees at a time when George Steinbrenner was really "The Boss." It was the 1980s when Steinbrenner changed players and managers like his signature turtlenecks. And when he threatened to trade Mattingly, then-manager Dallas Green asked Mattingly to call Steinbrenner and clear the air.
During an off-the-cuff session with several writers on Saturday, Mattingly recalled that he spoke to Steinbrenner and told him he could do anything he wanted, but he must treat him with respect. Mattingly wasn't traded.
"And George treated me golden after that," Mattingly recalled.
And so it was that Mattingly drew the line of respect again last October. After the news conference, Mattingly quickly said he'd honor the terms of the one-year agreement, and he and the Dodgers soon came to terms on the longer deal.
"I didn't mean to do that [at the news conference]," Mattingly said. "Sometimes things come out of your mouth when you get frustrated. But from there, I talked to [Dodgers chairman] Mark [Walter]. And I talked to [Dodgers president] Stan [Kasten]. I told Mark basically what I said at the press conference, 'I love it here. But I don't want to be anywhere where they don't want me, where they don't believe in me.' He kind of assured me at that point that that wasn't the case. So I knew at that point that we'd get something worked out. There really were never any other issues to get worked out."
Mattingly has a .536 (260-226) winning percentage in three years as Dodgers manager, and the team hasn't finished below third place. To be sure, he has his hands full with a clubhouse filled with high-priced, star players who had a hard time remaining healthy last season. There's the mercurial Puig, for one. Matt Kemp may not be ready for the season opener on March 22-23 against the D-backs in Australia after offseason surgery to repair his left ankle and left shoulder. And it remains to be seen how many games Mattingly will get out of Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier, who missed a significant amount of time this past season with a plethora of injuries.
But one thing is certain, when one of those guys goes down for the count, this year Mattingly won't.
"I think that's important and that's the kind of distraction we don't need. I'm glad it's out of the way," Mattingly said. "Listen, everybody likes to know where they're going to be. But it can still change. Let's face it. This is a huge payroll. They can do whatever they want. And I'm a drop in the bucket. Not even a drop. So that doesn't give me any security. Again, to me, it's about the confidence. And that's really the biggest thing. It tells me that the organization, and that means ownership, has confidence that I can get this done."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.